Whenever I ask any of my Japanese friends how many seasons there are in this country, they invariably tell me four. Shiki (四季), the four seasons, are magical aspects of Japan that you won’t quite experience anywhere else—or so they would like you to believe, but I don’t buy it.
Unpleasant and pleasant
Every time I bring it up, the conversation goes like this:
“What about tsuyu (梅雨), the rainy season,” I ask. “What’s that?”
“Summer, huh? You know, I find tsuyu to be so uniquely different that it deserves to be called a season all by itself.”
“Okay, smart aleck, there are five seasons then.”
“Well, then how about all the sekki (節気), or the 24 terms in the traditional lunisolar calendar?”
You know it won’t last because the rainy season—cloudy skies, torrential rainfall and unflagging humidity—is lurking just around the corner.
Sekki is the traditional way of expressing seasons in Japan. There are 24 sekki, including rikka (立夏, the first day of summer) in early May, shoman (小満, lit. “a little full” as in growing, waxing) in late May and boshu (芒種, lit. bearded grain) in early June.
The 24 sekki can be further divided into three for a total of 72 shijijūni ko (七十二侯) that last for about five days each. These subseasons include mugi no toki itaru (麦秋至), or “the time for wheat has come,” which lasts from May 31 to June 5, and kamakiri shozu (“the mantis is born”) from June 6 to June 10.
“You’re confusing me, gaijin-san.”
“I’ll simplify it for you, then. I think there are only two seasons: unpleasant and pleasant.” Or, as a friend once commented accurately: livable and utterly unlivable.
Climatic heaven and hell
It’s during the “pleasant season” that all is forgiven. When April or May come around, a parade of different flowers blooms each week: sakura, azalea, wisteria and iris.
The days so sunny and warm, you can forget that only a few months ago, your teeth were chattering as you sat in your home or office, unable to think about anything but the persistent cold that had seeped into your bones.
Ah, if only it were like this all year long, you sigh. But you know it won’t last because the rainy season—cloudy skies, torrential rainfall and unflagging humidity—is lurking just around the corner like the class bully waiting to pounce. And sometimes it comes earlier than usual.
When fall rolls around, I will once again take in the beauty of the autumnal colors, forget all about the blast-furnace heat and stifling humidity.
Now, you might think that what begins early ends early; but an early start to the rainy season usually means a longer, wetter rainy season if the past is anything to go by. That was true in 1953, when tsuyu began on May 13 and ended on Aug. 1. It rained 81% more than usual that year. But no rainy season was more patience-trying than 1993’s, the end of which only blew in with the typhoons of late summer.
That year, I acquired a lot of new Japanese vocab that I could have done without—words like:
- reika (冷夏, a cool summer)
- fusoku (不足, shortage)
- pasa-pasa (パサパサ, dry, crumbly)
The rainy season of ’93 ended up being so long and wet and gray and cool (reika) that Japan’s rice harvest fell by about a quarter (komebusoku) and pasapasa rice had to be imported from Thailand.
Personally speaking, I love the so-called taimai (タイ米) or fragrant jasmine rice, so I couldn’t understand what all the sawagi (騒ぎ, fuss)—another new word for me—was about. Granted, it was nearly impossible to make onigiri with it.
Travel back to 1994
Now, you might think that a shorter, drier rainy season would be just the ticket, but that is exactly what we had the following summer. While there was a bumper crop in rice that year, up to twenty percent or so from the previous year, we would experience a fusoku of another kind that was even more trying: mizubusoku (水不足, water shortage).
Rainfall was 60% lower than average in my area, and drastic water-saving measures had to be taken, such as dansui (断水, cutting off the water supply).
In Fukuoka City, the water supply was cut from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. In those demoralizing days, I worked from early morning until late in the evening, meaning I had only an hour or two of water every weekday to shower, wash clothes, cook, do the dishes and fill the tub with water.
I also came to understand the irrefutable Japanese verity of mujo (無常), that nothing lasts forever.
Now, it wouldn’t have been half as bad if the drought hadn’t occurred at the height of the year’s other “unpleasant season” when you have to change your skivvies and undershirt two or three times a day because they’re sopping wet and musty with sweat.
You could say that in 1994 I learned a valuable life lesson: be careful of what you wish for. I also came to understand the irrefutable Japanese verity of mujo (無常), that nothing lasts forever.
Thus, when that other pleasant season, known as fall, rolls around, I will once again take in the beauty of the autumnal colors, forget all about the blast-furnace heat and stifling humidity of the past summer, and sigh, “ah, if only it were like this all year long.”
How many seasons do you think Japan has? What’s your favorite season? Which season do you dread the most? Let us know in the comments!